Black Design?: Can We Lean Away From European Standards
By Jaylin Paschal
Virgil Abloh has been appointed as the artistic director for Louis Vuitton menswear, as only the first black artistic director of LV and only the third to head a French heritage house.
Many are excited about the positioning of Abloh simply because he is a black man from Chicago who's breaking down a major door for black designers. Issa Rae's "I'm rooting for everybody black" mentality is one that many of us can get behind. A win for a black man is a win for all of us. And because of this, I'm looking forward to Abloh's tenure and wishing him unsurmountable success, despite my constant critique of his work.
But for those expecting Louis Vuitton to suddenly be a "black" brand, I have to remind you, Off-White wasn't even a "black brand." Aside from Abloh regularly saying he identified more with white kids, Off-White hardly ever casted black models. Spring 15 RTW had no models of color, nor did Fall 2015 RTW or Pre-Fall 2016. Spring 2016 RTW had one.
Abloh has also been criticized for his high pricing and European elitism which directly contradicts his "for the kids" ethos preached at speaking engagements. His price points are mostly out of reach for black youth, his storefronts are inaccessible for most African Americans and his team is also vastly white. So, if Off-White wasn't particularly "black"--positioned in Europe with lines inspired by women like Princess Diana--why would LV, a historically and expectantly white design house--now suddenly be?
I have to remind you that both the CEO and SVP of Diversity + Engagement of Pepsi are women of color. Meaning that the god awful Kendall Jenner ad was done under the watch of women of color. "Representation" in leadership does not always translate to representation in production, nor does it guarantee meaningful cultural engagement. This is especially true in art and design.
Designers often consider Europe to be the pinnacle of beauty, and reflect those European standards in architecture, fashion, etc. regardless of whether or not the designer is black. European design is usually considered "above" other schools of thought. That's why, regardless of what a black designer creates, it's dubbed "streetwear." And that's why people were so stoked Abloh got a job at a French design house. There's an elegancy that's implied with European--read: white--design tradition.
Take Virgil's friend and collaborator, Kanye West, for example. A black man who, after venturing into design, married the whitest of white women and began to compare himself closely to Pablo Picasso, a white artist who notably said "Negro art? Don't know it." Ye's accepted Europe as the aesthetic and artistic standard for so long, and many designers do and have done the same.
Although Abloh isn't known for his originality (no shade), I'm hoping he can bring a fresh perspective to LV that does more than copy the looks young black kids are rocking on Insta as "haute streetwear," and really brings blackness to the forefront of fashion. We set the trends anyway.
I'm happy Abloh got this job, mainly because he wanted it and worked until it was his. But moreover I'm glad it's him because he has the attention of the youth right now. What he does at LV will shape the career and creativity of an entire generation of black designers and culture critics. With great power comes great responsibility.